Too large for their boots?

Once they were stars. Now they're history. Decca Aitkenhead on the demise of the celebrity DJ
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some people worry that star footballers get paid too much. As wages run into millions, and ticket prices make the opera look like quite a bargain, one or two fans have suggested they might not be getting their money's worth. Imagine, then, what they might say if the following were to happen.

Alan Shearer and co quit their clubs, and set off around the country with their boots every Saturday afternoon, dropping in on half a dozen matches for 10 minutes a go. With a bit of luck, they score each time, the crowd goes mad, and the stars dash off, several grand the richer, to the next stadium. The managers are mighty pleased because gates are up and the crowds get to see their heroes without spending all day on a supporters' coach. Sorted, one might say.

But not so sorted, however, if the supporters turn up to see their local team and find they are being charged twice the usual ticket price just to see some egomaniac ponce about, fail to fit into the home side's rhythm, score an own goal and make off, leaving the club practically bankrupt.

Substitute football club for nightclub, and you are looking at the syndrome of the guest star DJ.

Clubland - or, more specifically, the dance scene - is now dominated by an elite of A-list DJs who no longer play in just one club, but travel around Britain playing as many as four or five different clubs a night, charging pounds 1,500 to pounds 3,000 for a two-hour set. On nights like New Year's Eve, fees can climb to pounds 15,000, and bookings to play abroad will include first-class flights, often with entourage in tow, plus five-star hotel accommodation and all the other trappings of rock-star status. A name like Paul Oakenfold or Jeremy Healy on the flier should guarantee a rammed and riotous club. But increasingly, clubbers and promoters are starting to wonder if they're worth it. Will 1997 see the death of the celebrity DJ?

"There's a massive groundswell of disappointment with DJs going around three or four sets a night, just playing records, not DJing - and there's a difference," says Darren Hughes, a partner of Liverpool superclub Cream. "We've decided it's simply got to stop." After years booking the biggest names week-in week-out, Cream have announced that from now on they will be using a small, select group of their own residents. "I'm not going to slag guest DJs off," shrugs Hughes, "but we've got too much to lose."

There are plenty of others willing to slag them off, though. Accounts of DJs turning up late, or cancelling, are commonplace. Some big names, like Carl Cox, escape criticism - "because they're there all night, getting a feel for the club, seeing what it wants," says Hughes. Others get there two minutes before they're due on, bang out a formula set and are off.

The Hacienda faithful in Manchester found themselves paying pounds 40 to get into their club on New Year's Eve in 1995, just because Todd Terry had been booked. Many were less than thrilled. This year, the club charged pounds 30, used only its residents, and enjoyed the best night in years. On the same night, at least one club paid pounds 15,000 for a star, and found itself half-empty.

The Hacienda abandoned the Saturday night star system last autumn, and has since seen numbers return to capacity. Last summer on Ibiza, only one club - Manumission - registered real success; it put its faith in long-standing residents, while other promoters flew out stars at huge expense, to play to empty dancefloors. Miss Moneypenny's in Birmingham is another club to take note; it will continue to book the big names, but will fill the early evening slot with complete unknowns. Paul Oakenfold, the most expensive guest travelling the circuit last year, has taken up a residency at Cream for 1997.

For a scene which began, a decade ago, as a celebration of the absence of pop-star egos and prima donnas, house music looks in some danger of souring over this. New DJs complain that promoters daren't book them any more. Clubbers complain about inflated door prices. And what of the star DJs themselves? They are complaining like hell about all this complaining. It's market forces, they shrug. We provide a star service, pack out people's clubs, and all the criticism is just so much greed and envy.

"All this stuff about us being bad or something for playing 20 different clubs a night - it's just promoters trying to get exclusive rights over DJs. And why should they?" demands Jeremy Healy, A of the A-list of celebrity DJs. "Take Cream - they've got a massive club, it's been going for years, and people are just fed up of going. It's not the DJs' fault.

"There's money to be made in this business, and people are just jealous because I'm one of the ones making it. What else should I do? Not make it, and let somebody else?"

Another star, Sasha, is more philosophical. "All industries need their stars. This just goes in cycles. Quite a lot of the big names are looking to go back to being residents at the moment - I'm looking around for a residency myself - but we're just tired of the travelling." So are we seeing a backlash? "Nah, just bitching."

Time will tell. If market forces prevail, it will be the clubbers themselves who decide whether Healy and co are sons of God or rancid has-beens. Cream are confident that they will be proved right - but a promoter at another superclub is pessimistic.

"The trouble is, half the clubbers are so drug-fucked they can't even tell who's playing. They just like to take the flier home and stick it on their bedroom wall."

Additional research by Emma E Forrest

On the A-List (for now)

Jeremy Healy

The name on the flier guaranteed to pack your club, Healy, 34, is the Kevin Costner of clubland. Critics point to an early Eighties phase as one half of pop duo Haysi Fantayzee, cite his role in the lamentable acid house anthem, `Everything Starts With An E', and wonder if they need say more.

Paul Oakenfold

A musical oddball, who has remixed Snoop Doggy Dog and the Stone Roses among others, he is the man guilty of turning a small region of India called Goa into an esoteric brand of dance music. "People settle for things they don't have to," he says. "I'm not one of those." The clubs who pay this man pounds 2-3,000 per set would undoubtedly agree.

Danny Rampling

It was at Rampling's club that acid house's smiley face emblem was launched - a crime for which many suggest he ought never to be forgiven. Rampling, 35, has a theory that cooking and DJing are much alike. Anyone who has ever paid for dinner at a celebrity chef's restaurant will know how promoters feel when Rampling comes for his fee at the end of the night.

Sasha

One of the very first DJs to make the superstar grade, Sasha has maintained an unlikely and likeable modesty. Mixmag has called him the "son of God". Sasha says he finds this sort of adulation "weird" - though not, of course, weird enough to stop him charging a reported pounds 8,000 a night for a recent national tour.

Pete Tong

Fans praise his ordinary bloke, feet-on-the-ground kind of image. Critics will tell you this is really a businessman disguised as a DJ. The first to convert dance floor kudos into corporate cash, Tong was A&Ring for London Records at 23, founded his own label at 28, and spearheaded Radio1's belated discovery of house music. At 36, he is worth millions.

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